Digital literacy and digital justice

Digital literacy and digital justice

Why should social and digital justice factor into the design of adult literacy education? Learn more via Suzanne Smythe and Dionne Pelan, as part of our series on inclusion and equity.
March 6, 2019
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Dionne Pelan is the Computer and Drop-in Programs Coordinator with the UBC Learning Exchange.

Suzanne Smythe is Associate Professor in Adult Literacy and Adult Education in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University.

Timely, responsive, and appropriate adult literacy education is about achieving a more just and equitable society. As researchers and practitioners in digital literacy education, we are learning that literacy work oriented to social justice takes on a new urgency in a digital society. Adult literacy education work today is also digital literacy education, in that few adults can avoid engagement with digital technologies, and fluency in their use is becoming necessary in all aspects of our lives. These technologies are full of promise and potential, but they are also entangled in troubling trends of exclusion that reproduce and intensify the inequalities of the offline world. For this reason, our goal in this article is to make a case for why adult literacy researchers and educators should attend to social justice and digital justice as an integral part of their work. This article builds upon our contribution to the Brookfield Institute’s June 2018 report, Levelling Up: The Quest for Digital Literacy, where we proposed that efforts to support digital literacy need to consider the complexities of digital access. We now extend this argument to include the phenomena of digital justice. We understand digital justice as a pedagogical sensibility, one that addresses how digital technologies promote or obstruct a more equitable society. Digital justice is concerned with fair and equitable access to technologies and skills; appropriate instructional approaches and design tailored to different groups; and safe, secure and inclusive spaces online. This extends to data literacy, an awareness (as much as this is possible) of how data is generated by and about individuals and groups and the consequences of this.


When we design and engage in digital literacy instruction, we also attend to how racism, poverty, gender and sexuality discrimination, ableism, ageism, colonialism and other forms of oppression intersect.

Sasha Costanza-Chock, 2018; Crenshaw, 1991

We offer three propositions to support a digital justice orientation to literacy work in Canada. This article draws upon examples of digital justice issues-in-action as they play out in community technology centres (which we call tech cafés) where we carry out our collaborative research. Tech cafés are a literacy outreach project of the Downtown Eastside Literacy Roundtable; community members trained to offer one-to-one digital literacy support, bring laptops and other devices into community centres, parks, drop-ins, and shelters. The UBC Learning Exchange, where Dionne works as a project coordinator, also offers regular digital literacy classes for members of the Downtown Eastside Community. These tech cafes are rich sites for learning about the powerful force of digital in/justice in everyday lives. We are also inspired by a burgeoning digital justice movement in Canada, led by groups such as Toronto’s Digital Justice Lab and by the work of the US National Digital Inclusion Alliance, among others, that are paving the way for interdisciplinary, collaborative, and inventive approaches to justice-based education in digital environments.

Digital justice: Working propositions

Digital justice is an intersectional issue

Robinson, Cotton, Ono, Quan-Haase, et al (2015) argue that “[I]t is by now well understood that digital inequality and exclusion cannot be analyzed apart from the offline circumstances of individuals and groups […] specific forms of digital exclusion map onto particular kinds of offline disadvantage” (p. 570). This idea that the forces of exclusion and oppression that operate in society are also present and in many ways intensified in online worlds, is central to our understanding of digital justice. When we design and engage in digital literacy instruction, we also attend to how racism, poverty, gender and sexuality discrimination, ableism, ageism, colonialism and other forms of oppression intersect (Sasha Costanza-Chock, 2018; Crenshaw, 1991). For example, lower income, older women of colour may have very different experiences of digital access and different technology learning needs than younger women of colour, or people with disabilities, and so on. Mirchandani, Ng, Sangha, Rawlings, and Coloma‑Moya (2005) make this point in their study of computer skills training among women who are contingent garment workers in Ontario. Although these women, most of whom were new immigrants to Canada, benefitted from computer training, they still experienced barriers to digital literacy due to their restrictive working conditions, lack of access to language education, and difficulties negotiating the English-language keyboards and Internet sites. The authors argue that this contributes to “the exclusion of these and other racialized workers, especially women, in the very design of computers and the Internet” (p. 28). The concept of intersectionality helps us to see that digital literacy education is not a ‘one size fits all and forever’ activity; it requires sensitive awareness to how different groups and individuals experience and learn with new technologies.

Digital justice is a design issue

Scholar and digital rights activist Sasha Costanza-Chock (2018) draws upon intersectionality to propose the concept of design justice. They argue that design justice is “concerned with how the design of objects and systems influences the distribution of risks, harms, and benefits among various groups of people” (2018, p. 4). Consider the design of an online application for social assistance (in BC this is also called ‘welfare’). Welfare offices often do not provide help with the application process, nor access to the technology, and so applicants are referred to libraries and community agencies such as tech cafés for help. This requires people to share intimate details about their lives with people they may not know well, an often demoralizing and humiliating experience, and ironically one that people are warned to avoid in the interest of data privacy. The multi-step welfare application process also requires an active email address (and therefore a password and password recovery protocol) and a current digital photo uploaded with the application (requiring a camera, skills to save and upload the photos and so on). The consequence is that people often fail in their welfare applications the first time, moving into deeper precarity.

For whom is this system designed? Who carries the risks, who is harmed and who benefits? Costanza-Chock (2018) argues that governments, corporations and other powerful actors tend to design online environments in ways that “default to dominant social groups” (Costanza-Chock, 2018, p. 4); in other words, those who are perhaps more like themselves and others they know, with ubiquitous access to a smart phone and data, a printer and other devices, skills in online literacies, access to private space, with no disabilities and so on (Constanza-Chock, 2018; Smythe, Pelan and Breshears, 2018). This is not to say that people who experience oppression are not able to use online forms. Many people who attend the tech cafés have learned to manage and some even prefer them. The point is that the burden of adaptation to technology design often falls on those who already experience risks and harm flowing from intersectional forms of oppression. We found another example of this in the redesign of Gmail, one of the most popular and widely used email programs in North America (Statistica, 2018).

But there were no other options for proving ownership and in those few moments, Jane lost access to her vital documents, contacts, phone numbers, and main method of communication with no way to retrieve them. Such experiences of disconnection are deeply disruptive and traumatizing for those with histories of personal loss and abandonment.

Google has redesigned its verification protocols to prevent the use of stolen devices and hacking. This is no doubt a positive development for many, but carried catastrophic consequences for Jane, a precariously housed woman who relies on public access computing and who must keep her most precious information on the cloud. Jane lives in a women’s shelter and relies heavily on her Gmail account to communicate with friends, family and work. She uses her cloud storage to keep important photos and documents safe and accessible but does not have her own device, instead relying upon one of the many public computers available in the community. Changes to Gmail’s security features led to flags of suspicious activity because she logs in to multiple computers each day. One afternoon her login attempt at a community centre was flagged as possible “hacking”, with a warning message that because she was logging in from an unknown device she would need to verify that she owned the account before she could access it. Ownership could be verified by a secure access code texted to the phone number she provided when she set up the account or, by verifying the month/year the account was created, then answering the security questions she set up at the time. Jane no longer has access to the cell number listed as the phone was recently stolen, a sadly common occurrence for citizens who stay in shelters. The account was created such a long time ago that Jane could no longer remember the exact month. Indeed, who among us could remember that? After several attempts Jane’s account was locked ‘until she could provide proof’ of ownership. But there were no other options for proving ownership and in those few moments, Jane lost access to her vital documents, contacts, phone numbers, and main method of communication with no way to retrieve them. Such experiences of disconnection are deeply disruptive and traumatizing for those with histories of personal loss and abandonment.

These unfortunate cases alert our attention to how technology design distributes risk and harm and shapes life experiences. Although digital literacy skills are very important to manage email, Jane’s difficulties in this case were not caused by a lack of digital literacy skills but rather by design values and assumptions that privilege more dominant groups, in this case, those with private, secure access to their own devices (Felczak, Smith & Glass, 2009). Jane’s experience also leads us to ask, with Constanza-Chock (2018) and the Design Justice Alliance, ‘what would email design (and for that matter some government services and job applications) look like if precariously housed, homeless people and others who rely upon public access computing had a say in their design?’ Digital literacy skills are important, and digital technologies can be empowering and a force for justice when they are more democratically designed. This leads us to our third proposition.

Digital education is for everyone

Everyone should have access to timely and appropriate critical digital literacy education regardless of their print literacy skills or education background. Haight, Quan-Haase, and Corbett (2014) observe that the internet and technologies are constantly changing; the rise of social networking sites, e-government, automation, machine learning, and privacy protocols (and to this we might add the contemporary concerns of fake news and algorithms) all require ongoing access to digital literacy education that helps us think through new problems of rights and justice.

Some digital literacy frameworks see digital skills in a linear way, with ‘basic skills’ as subordinate to ‘higher order’ problem-solving skills and print literacy as a prerequisite for digital literacy. But in our work in the tech cafés, we notice that adults who might struggle with essay writing or form filling nevertheless participate in social media networks and texting, carry out parenting and work responsibilities, and may even do a lot more reading on screen than in print. The fluency and skill with which people use digital technologies vary greatly and as we have seen, these user experiences are also shaped by social positioning, by technology design, and by the quality of learning environments. There is nothing ‘basic’ about digital learning in such a dynamic and complex internet ecosystem. Bill, a participant in one of the tech cafés, helped us to understand this. Bill often attends the tech cafés to learn more about how to use his laptop. He is confident and fluent in his online activities and an active participant in social media. One day, Bill brought in a paper-based form for housing and asked if we could help him find it online but unfortunately, the housing provider would only accept hard copies of the application (a rarity indeed)! This caused Bill enormous anxiety. After a brief discussion it became clear that English was Bill’s second language, he did not see himself as a good speller, and he felt that he did not have legible writing. He stated that this made him feel stupid even though he wasn’t. He preferred to do the form online as the computer would correct his spelling and sentence structure. As digital literacy educators and researchers, situations such as this lead us to question the boundaries between print and digital literacies, and linear views of skills that place people in categories of ‘who is ready’ for digital literacy and who is not. For Bill, digital technologies allowed him to overcome the barriers of print literacy, even if the design of the system still posed difficulties.

Conclusions: Working with digital justice

A digital justice approach to literacy education asks not if people can access the Internet and digital technologies but rather how different groups experience online worlds. For example, Neil Selwyn (2010; 2014) asks, “Who benefits in what ways from Internet connectivity? How does the Internet amplify rather than disrupt existing social patterns and relations?” (p. 96). Attention to design justice also reframes a focus on individual skill deficits in literacy discourses by drawing our attention to how digital technology systems and designs produce exclusion. Working with sensibility, we might focus on design deficits rather than skill deficits. In a world of fake news, automation, privacy, and surveillance, digital literacy should be available to everyone in ways that are accessible, appropriate, and sensitive to intersecting experiences of oppression. This is not a compensatory effort, but one oriented to socio-economic inclusion,  democratic rights and critical digital citizenship. In this, literacy education is a powerful site of digital justice.


Works cited

Costanza-Chock, S. (2018). Design justice: Towards an intersectional feminist framework for design theory and practice (June 3, 2018). Proceedings of the Design Research Society 2018. Available at SSRN:

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity politics, and violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299. doi:10.2307/1229039

Digital Justice Lab (2018). Our mission: Building towards a more just and equitable future. Retrieved from

Felczak, M., Smith, R., & Glass, G. (2009). Communicating with (some) Canadians: Communication rights and government online in Canada. Canadian Journal Of Communication, 34(3), 435-460.

Haight, M., Quan-Haase, A., & Corbett, B. A. (2014). Revisiting the digital divide in Canada: The impact of demographic factors on access to the internet, level of online activity, and social networking site usage. Information, Communication & Society, 17(4), 503-519. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2014.891633

Robinson, L., Cotten, S. R., Ono, H., Quan‑Haase, A., Mesch, G., Chen, W., et al. (2015). Digital inequalities and why they matter. Information, Communication & Society, 18(5), 569–582. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2015.1012532

Statistica (2018). Primary e-mail providers according to consumers in the United States as of January 2017, by age group. Retrieved from

Selwyn, N. (2010). The ‘new’ connectivities of digital education. In M. Apple, S. J. Ball & L. A. Gandin (Eds.), The Routledge International Handbook of the Sociology of Education (pp. 90 – 102). London: Routledge.

Smythe, S., & Breshears, S. (2017). Complicating Access: Digital Inequality and Adult Learning in a Public Access Computing Space. Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education, 29(1), 67-81.

Smythe, S., Pelan, D., & Breshears, S. (2018). The LinkVan Project: Participatory Technology Design in Vancouver. Language and Literacy, 20(3), 9-25.

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